López, Israel “Cachao”
Israel “Cachao” López
In many respects, the career of Israel “Cachao” López embodies the story of Latin music in the twentieth century. Formally trained to perform European-influenced danzón pieces popular in Cuba in the 1930s, the prodigy soon contributed to the development of the Afro-Cuban style of mambo, co-writing the first song with his brother under that title in 1938. López performed with the Orquesta Arcaño y sus Maravillas during the 1940s and 1950s when Cuba reigned as the musical—not to mention Mafia—playground of North America. After fleeing Cuba in 1962, López performed in a number of Latin bands, settling down in Las Vegas for a time. Feeling the need to live among his fellow expatriates, López relocated to Miami’s Cuban community where he was reduced to playing at weddings to make a living. With the revival of interest in Latin music in the 1990s, however, López made a triumphant return to the public eye. With an acclaimed documentary, Grammy Award, and both critical and commercial success, López has continued to be an innovator, mentor, and above all else, superlative musician.
The youngest child in a musical family, López earned the nickname “Cachao” from a family surname, although the term as a variant of the word cachondeo, meaning jokester, also seemed to fit his personality. The López family produced a number of musical talents—sometimes said to number over 50 bassists in the immediate family alone—and both of López’s parents, in addition to his older brother and sister, played the bass. During his childhood, the family drew audiences to its home in Havana during daily rehearsal sessions; López supplemented this experience with formal training in piano and composition. At the age of 12, López became a member of the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, although this was not his first professional experience. For a number of years, López had been providing background music for silent films in the movie theaters of Havana with the Bola de Nieve Ensemble.
With the demise of silent movies, López played more often with dance orchestras to make a living, joining the lineup of the Orquesta Arcaño y sus Maravillas in 1937. Popular in Cuba in the first decades of the twentieth century, the orquesta típica most often played danzón pieces with the emphasis on violin, brass, and timpani drums. By the time of López’s arrival on the scene, however, the danzón had gradually moved away from it roots in European military-style marching music and adopted a more Africanized sound with syncopated percussion. Around the time that López joined the Orquesta Arcano y sus Maravillas, the orchestra had taken this development a step further, integrating the danzón with the pulsating conga. The resulting style, with its heavy rhythmic beat, proved
For the Record…
Born Israel López on September 14, 1918, in Havana, Cuba.
Joined Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, age 12; developed mambo style of music in Cuba, late 1930s; recorded several descarga albums, late 1950s-early 1960s; worked in Las Vegas, NV, 1970s; moved to Miami, enjoyed revival of popularity, 1990s.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Tropical Latin Performance, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —EMI Latin, 21700 Ox-nard Street, Suite 200, Woodland Hills, CA 91367, website: http://www.emilatin.com; Orfeon Records, Privada de Horacio No. 10, Col. Chapultepec Morales, C.P. 11560 Mexico D.F., website: http://www.orfeon.com.
enduringly popular with dance audiences. Capitalizing on its popularity, López and his brother Orestes wrote an estimated 3,000 danzónes, one of which, 1938’s Mambo, used a slower rhythm than typically used in a danzón. Over time, the new style would develop into its own distinct musical style, taking its name from the López brothers’ composition. In the 1950s, mambo reigned supreme as the preeminent Latin musical style, so popular that it became almost synonymous with Latin music itself.
Staying with the Orquesta Arcaño y sus Maravillas as a bassist, composer, and arranger until 1949, López joined a number of Cuban musical reviews and theater orchestras in the 1950s. He also played with the José Fajardo Orchestra in the mid 1950s, where he played mambo pieces along with songs in the newly popular cha-cha-cha style. By now acknowledged as one of Cuba’s leading musicians, López began his first series of recordings in the late 1950s with a group of colleagues who assembled for informal jam sessions in the early morning hours after their professional appearances were done. Known as descargas, or discharges, the gatherings allowed the musicians to experiment with several different styles of music, from mambo to jazz. The first result of these descarga sessions was released in 1957, with several additional albums issued throughout the early 1960s. The releases gained an international audience, and López was in great demand for dates around the world. Leaving for a stint with the Ernesto Duarte Orchestra in Spain in 1962, however, would turn out to be the beginning of López’s exile from Cuba.
With the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Fidel Castro instituted a socialist government that abhorred the capitalist—and specifically, American—influences that had controlled much of the country’s resources. Before long, the image of Havana as the hangout of American organized crime figures and pleasure-seeking vacationers was replaced by calls for a permanent socialist revolution under anti-capitalist slogans often directed at the United States. Obviously, the hotels, theaters, and nightclubs where López had played to Cuba’s elite and international tourists would no longer be in business. With the government’s control of all of Cuba’s media outlets, it was also questionable whether artistic freedom under the new government would be guaranteed. Like many other members of Cuba’s artistic community, López decided not to return to Castro’s rule.
Fortunately, Lopez’s international reputation meant that he was able to secure work with a number of leading Latin music groups in the 1960s, including the Charlie Palmieri Band and the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra. López also rejoined the José Fajardo Orchestra, which had reestablished itself in the United States after the Cuban Revolution. Spending most of the 1960s in New York City, López began a long-running series of engagements in Las Vegas in 1970, working with the Latin Fire Company. Over the next decade, López played at several of the city’s most famous reviews, doing shows at the MGM, Sahara, and Tropicana hotels. In 1978, however, López decided to leave Las Vegas. Feeling alienated in the community, he longed to be around other Cuban émigrés. Yet his move to Miami was a difficult one for his career, and for the next few years, López’s professional engagements often including playing at wedding parties.
Lopez’s journey back to popular recognition began with an encounter with Cuban-born actor Andy Garcia in 1989. Garcia had been a fan of Lopez’s since buying one of his records as a child. After meeting his musical idol, Garcia assembled a tribute concert that took place in Miami in July of 1992. Garcia also put together a documentary of Lopez’s career, including footage of the tribute concert, that appeared under the title Cachao: Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos (or Cachao: Like His Rhythm There Is No Other). Not only was the documentary critically acclaimed, it also helped usher in a new interest in Latin music throughout America and Europe. Together with Emilio Estefan, Jr.—husband of Gloria Estefan and founder of the Miami Sound Machine of the 1970s and 1980s—Garcia capitalized on the renewed interest in López by producing his first original album in several years. The result, Master Sessions Volume I, was another critical success. Including some traditional Cuban songs along with three descargas, the Master Sessions album earned the Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance for 1994. A follow-up album, Master Sessions Volume II, appeared in 1995, and López’s music was heard in the films The Birdcage, Dance With Me, and The Associate as well.
As an octogenarian, López continues to be an active composer and arranger. In 2000, his new work, “Mambo Mass,” debuted at Los Angeles’ St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. Using the ritual of the Catholic Mass as its structure, the piece integrated elements of mambo, opera, and classical music. López also continues to be a celebrated concert performer with his latest band, a 15-member orchestra with Garcia making guest appearances on the bongo drums. After one such appearance, the Los Angeles Times commented that “The ever-youthful López never ceases to surprise” with his energetic playing and obvious love of music. López also returned to the recording studio for another original album in 2000, which resulted in therelease of Cuba Linda, “a crisp, invigorating set,” according to a Los Angeles Times reviewer. López’s legacy also includes the rising star of his nephew, Orlando “Cachaito” López, son of his brother Orestes. Remaining in Cuba with his family during the Castro years, Cachaito’s bass playing had given him a reputation almost as formidable as his uncle’s. With the gradual opening of Cuba once again to the outside world, international audiences have come to appreciate another generation of the bass-playing López family.
Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature, Panart, 1957.
El Gran Cachao, Kubaney, 1958.
Jam Session with Feeling, Maype, 1958.
El Ritmo de Cachao, Kubaney, 1958.
Cuban Music in Jam Session, Bonita 1959.
Descargas, Maype, 1961.
El Indio, Arhoolie, 1962.
Dos, Sony, 1976.
Descarga 77, Salsoul, 1977.
Teacher of Teachers, Tania, 1986.
Descargas Cubanas, May, 1992.
Descargas y Mambos, May, 1994.
Cachao y Su Descarga, Big World, 1994.
Descarga, May, 1994.
Latin Jazz Descarga, PTO, 1994.
Master Sessions, Vol. 1, Crescent, 1994.
15 Hits, Hacienda, 1995.
Master Sessions, Vol. 2, Crescent Moon, 1995.
La Leyenda, Vol. 1, Kubaney, 1995.
La Leyenda, Vol. 2, Kubaney, 1995.
Lumbre, Hacienda, 1995.
Descargando, International, 1997.
Descarga Cubana, Astro, 1997.
Cuban Jam Session, Vol. 2, Astro, 1999.
Descarga Cubana, International, 2000.
Superdanzones, Egrem, 2000.
Cuban Descarga, Cubacam, 2000.
Cuba Linda, EMI, 2000.
Descargando con Cachao, Orfeon, 2000.
Tres Leyendas, Orfeon, 2001.
Broughton, Simon, et al., editors, World Music: The Rough Guide Volume 2, The Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Billboard, May 21, 1994, p. LM-6; August 6, 1994, p. 30.
Entertainment Weekly, August 12, 1994, p. 54.
Film Quarterly, Summer 2000.
Hispanic, November 1994, p. 12.
Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2000; September 11, 2000; February 12, 2001.
People, December 4, 1995, p. 26.
Times, April 18, 2001.
EMI Latin, http://www.emilatin.com/english/artist.asp?artistlD=907785 (June 22, 2001).
Picadillo, http://www.picadillo.com/figueroa/cachao.html (June 22, 2001).
Lopez, Israel “Cachao”
Israel “Cachao” Lopez
Film actor Andy Garcia told Lynette Rice in a Chicago Times article about Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, “In the music world, [Cachao is] a legend. In the … commercial world, he’s unknown.” While fame and fortune have not always been his, Lopez, who has been performing Cuban jazz for decades, has had an enormous influence on the direction this music has taken. He and the musicians he played with in the late 1930s and early 1940s in Havana developed the mambo from the more staid and traditional ballroom dance the danzón. In the mid-1950s, they applied the jazz jam session to Cuban music and created the improvised descarga.
Many members of the Lopez family were famous professional musicians. Young Israel began learning various instruments at an early age, and began playing professionally when he was only eight. While he could play guitar, trumpet, and bongos, he chose the bass as his main instrument because, as he explained to Gigi Anders of the Washington Post, “It’s the most important instrument, the foundation. There has to be a beat. An orchestra without a bass cannot speak. Just like a building, without an underlying structure, falls. It’s a rhythmic, accompanying instrument that carries the beat for all kinds of music. The ear always searches for it, and once it’s perceived, you relax.”
Lopez’s first job was in the movies, playing in an orchestra that accompanied silent films. When talkies put these musicians out of business, he moved on; by the age of 12, Israel Lopez was a full-time member of the Havana Philharmonic, as well as a number of dance bands. In 1937, he joined flautist Antonio Arcaño’s Las Maravillas. While his musical background included many types of music, Lopez preferred a distinctly Cuban music. “I was always attracted to [Cuban music] because it belonged to my country, my origins,” he told the Washington Post. “As a Latino, playing our music for Hispanic and Anglo ears is a chance to unite the Hispanic and Anglo cultures. Music is the closest way to reach all people.”
Lopez and his brother Orestes, also in the Orquesta Arcano y las Maravillas, composed and arranged most of the group’s performing repertoire of danzón, frequently more than 20 pieces in one week. The danzón, the most popular ballroom dance in Cuba in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was itself a mixture of the European contradance and the Afro-Cuban syncopated rhythms of the habanera. The Lopez brothers added riffs and swing and other jazz characteristics, and changed the danzón into the mambo. “Orestes and I wanted to give a spin to our music, turn it around a little, 180 degrees from what it was,” Lopez told the Washington Post. “So we made some
Born Israel Lopez, September 14, 1918, in Havana, Cuba; married, 1946; children: one daughter.
Joined the Havana Philharmonic, 1930; joined Orquesta Arcano y las Maravillas, 1937; made 16 albums in Cuba, 1945-60; left Cuba, 1962; joined the Miami Symphony, 1978; played at Alice Tully Hall in the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, 1991, and at Radio City Music Hall, 1993. Television appearances include Showbiz Today, 1994; subject of film documentary Cachao: Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos, 1994.
Awards: Latin Music Award, Billboard, 1994; inducted into Billboard’s Latin Music Hall of Fame, 1994; Grammy Award for best tropical Latin performance, 1995, for Master Sessions, Volume 1.
Addresses: Record company —Crescent Moon/Epic, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.
modifications, while always respecting the tradition. The idea was to give a bit more velocity to the old style.”
Lopez and his group made this new music mostly for themselves, not knowing who, if anyone, would appreciate it. Lopez said in the Washington Post: “You can never tell what will please people. When I made the mambo with Orestes, I thought ’Nobody will like this.’ It was a very explosive, spontaneous treatment. We were trying to advance our music and expected nothing to come of it. We thought people would think we were loco [crazy].” Instead, his audiences thought the new sound was marvelous, and it soon spread, quickly becoming the hottest dance worldwide. Interest in jazz by Cuban musicians kept growing in the 1940s and 1950s, and soon Lopez and his colleagues started playing and recording jam sessions—sessions of improvisation—called descarga, meaning ’discharge.’ Lopez continued to play mambas, danzón, and descarga for the next 40 years, inside and outside of Cuba.
Lopez remained with the Havana Philharmonic for 30 years, until Communist dictator Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. The following years were difficult for Lopez, for he was unable to achieve the same level of success outside of Cuba that he had found inside. He played in New York and Las Vegas for a number of years, finally settling down and joining the symphony orchestra in Miami, Florida. Aside from the orchestra, he played with bands in clubs, remaining in quiet obscurity until the early 1990s, when Latin jazz and descarga began to enjoy something of a renaissance.
Due in great part to the efforts of Cuban-born American film star Andy Garcia, Lopez received attention when Latin jazz began to become popular again. In the early 1990s, Garcia began to promote Lopez’s performances. In 1992, he hosted a Lopez concert as part of the Cuban Music Festival in Miami. For the next two years, Garcia produced the film documentary Cachao: Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos (Cachao: Like His Rhythm, There Is No Other). The film takes the festival concert as its point of departure. A lot of footage is of the show, interspersed with other biographical and musical material and shots of rehearsals as well as a few interviews. The film chronicles Lopez’s career from his early days in Havana up to the 1992 concert.
In 1994 Andy Garcia also produced a new recording for Lopez, Master Sessions, Volume 1. Despite his advanced years (he made the recording when he was 75), Lopez had energy to spare. As Garcia, who played percussion on the album, told the Chicago Tribune, “It’s one thing to hear them play, but to see how they play. Cachao is like no other…. We had no overdubbing. We did it in one or two takes. Everyone was playing at the same time…. It was masterminded by Cachao. It was a historical event. The music was like a live organism of sound … and he’s the driving force of the rhythm.”
Lopez started the recording session with four arrangements, and six days later had recorded 30. He arranged one piece on a cocktail napkin during a coffee break. “He then passed the pieces of paper out, saying, ’This is your piece for the trombone,’ and so on,” Garcia related in the Chicago Tribune. “When performing, he is like a child. He has the exuberance of a teenager.”
What has given Israel Lopez the ’exuberance of a teenager’ and what has kept him going through the lean years has been a deep, abiding love for what he does. He told Anders that “with music, I’m generating happiness and good humor twenty-four hours a day.” Lopez considers himself lucky, and explained to Washington Post contributor Anders that “somewhere in Heaven there must be a star called ’Contrabass’ that guided me to my instrument.” He also told Anders that he believes that “a world without music would not be possible. It’s our spiritual artery. It lifts us, makes us feel better.”
Cuban Jam Session in Miniature ’Descargas,’Panart, 1957.
Jam Sessions with Feeling, Maype, 1958.
Cuban Music in Jam Session, Bonita, 1961.
Cachao y su Descarga ’77, Volume 7, Salsoul Records, 1977.
Cachao y su Descarga Dos, Volume 2, Salsoul Records, 1977.
Cuban Jazz, Gema, 1981, reissued, Palladium, 1988.
Walpataca, Tania Records, 1981.
Maestro de Maestros/Israel Lopez ’Cachao’ y su Descarga ’86, Tania Records, 1986.
Master Sessions, Volume 1, Crescent Moon/Epic, 1994.
Billboard, May 7, 1994; May 21, 1994; August 6, 1994.
Buffalo News (NY), January 16, 1993.
Chicago Tribune, August 12, 1994; September 18, 1994.
Down Beat, January 1991; February 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, August 12, 1994.
Los Angeles Times, September 15, 1993.
Montreal Gazette, September 3, 1994.
New York Times, December 20, 1991; December 23, 1991; January 21, 1993; August 19, 1994.
Wall Street Journal, August 26, 1992.
Washington Post, September 14, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was provided by the film documentary Cachao: Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos, Epic Home Video, 1994, and Crescent Moon Records publicity materials, 1994.